Can men accurately see if a woman is sexually interested? The ability to perceive and remember a woman's interest or rejection is certainly important to men. But some men experience difficulty recognizing sexual interest and these difficulties may predict sexual aggression.
In the last decade, Teresa Treat and her colleagues have conducted important research investigating men's ability to perceive and remember sexual interest displayed by women. They have described 3 critical failures. But not all men display these problems in detecting interest - instead, some men show these difficulties more than others.
The first problem is that men overestimate how interested women are. When men and women converse and interact, men perceive their conversation partners as more sexually interested in them than the women perceive themselves. The same overestimation happens when people observe a man and a woman conversing - Men perceive the woman as more sexually interested than women perceive her. Farris, Treat, Viken, and McFall (2008) suggested that this overestimation effect may reflect a subgroup of men. The subgroup displays the overestimation of interest so strongly that the subgroup raises the average of all men. In other words, just some of the men overestimate women's sexual interest and those over-estimators make all men look bad.
Attention to the wrong visual cues is the second problem. Treat, McFall, Viken, and Kruschke (2001) looked at whether men pay more attention to how a woman is dressed or what her emotional expression conveys. They showed men pairs of pictures of women and had the men rate how similar the women were. The women varied in how provocatively they were dressed and in whether they displayed positive or negative emotional states. Some men grouped the women based on their emotional expression. Other men primarily attended to how provocatively the women dressed. Clothing is not a reliable indicator of a woman's sexual interest, but her emotional expression is. Thus some men attend to the wrong visual cues.
Sample photos from Treat et al. 2011
The third problem displayed by some men is a memory failure. Treat, Viken, Kruschke, and McFall (2011) showed men pictures of women that varied in how attractive the women were, how provocatively they were dressed, and how much sexual interest they displayed (you can see sample photos from the article). After the men had looked at several of these pictures, the researchers gave the men an interesting memory test. For the memory test, the men observed two pictures of each woman in the same clothes but displaying different levels of sexual interest. The task was to indicate exactly which picture the men had seen previously - that is, could the men accurately remember how much sexual interest the woman had originally displayed? Overall men remembered more accurately when the women displayed sexual interest, dressed provocatively, and were more attractive. Treat and colleagues suggested that men may attend more to women in whom they might be more interested. But there were reliable individual differences in memory for sexual interest. Some men were worse at remembering sexual interest than others.
Treat and her colleagues have documented an interesting and troublesome subset of men. These men overestimate a woman's interest, attend to the wrong visual cues, and fail to accurately remember if a woman was displaying sexual interest.
While this pattern of failures is interesting, the troublesome part is that these failures relate to the potential for sexual coercion and aggression: Men who display failures of perception and memory also endorse various measures of sexual aggression. Treat et al. (2001) asked the men to read stories in which a man continued to make sexual advances to a woman who responded negatively. Men who displayed a bias to attend to provocative clothing rather than emotional expression saw his continued advances as more reasonable than other men. In other studies, Treat and colleagues have found that men who have difficulties perceiving and remembering sexual interest are more likely to endorse rape myths. The endorsement of rape myths is generally seen as indicating an increased tendency to engage in sexual coercion and aggression.
In many ways these studies are somewhat depressing. There really are guys who just don't get it: They can't tell if a woman is interested, they attend to the wrong visual cues, they overestimate interest, and they misremember whether a woman displayed interest. These are the men who may be inclined to engage in sexual aggression.
But I hope there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. Perhaps these men can be trained to do better, to learn to attend to emotional cues rather than clothing cues.